Amitav Acharya on the Relevance of Regions, ASEAN, and Western IR’s false universalisms

Published on Theory Talk #42, August 10, 2011.

Today’s IR in its many variants is still, very much, a western social science. The claims it makes are however of universal purport. Amitav Acharya challenges western IR as predicated upon a false universalism. In his work, Acharya tries to undercut this problem by amending western IR theorizing with subaltern views on international politics. If IR theory is to remain relevant throughout the 21st century, Acharya argues, it needs to draw in the variety of pathways and experiences from outside the western world. In this Talk, amongst others, he discusses ‘subaltern universalisms’, how we can understand the international politics of ASEAN, and the importance of the Bhagavad Gita for IR theory.  

What is, according to you, the biggest challenge / principle debate in current IR? What is your position or answer to this challenge / debate?

The biggest challenge today is how to make the study of IR more inclusive by moving it beyond its American-centrism or Eurocentric biases. IR theory as it stands now marginalizes the histories, voices and experiences of the non-Western world.

The debate is not so much on whether these biases exist, as I think that few people would dispute that, but regarding the genuine disagreement on how to address these biases.

There are some scholars that believe that the mainstream theories of realism, liberalism or constructivism are flexible enough and can be adapted to capture the voices and experiences of the non-Western world. They argue that we should use these theories and test their ability to adapt, and if there is anything missing, that we should revise these theories. For them there is no reason for anything new beyond what we already have.

Another point of view is that we really need to reject the premises and approaches of existing IR theories and methodologies and adopt radically different theories and methodologies.

My own position is somewhat in between, I don’t think we should demolish or reject existing theories of IR whether be it realism or liberalism or constructivism, simply because they are derived from Western philosophy and a Western version of international history. What I argue is that we can bring in new theories, methodologies and approaches from the South and the non-Western world and these new approaches should be allowed to interact and compete with what we already have.

The key goal for me is for everyone to feel at home and something to share in the house of IR. I should also probably stress that it is not my intention to promote a grand debate, like those between realism and idealism or rationalism and constructivism. I also recognize that the categories of Western and non-Western that I use are not homogeneous – conversations and debates occur inside those camps as much as they occur between them. What I would like to see is that the tendencies and biases that underpin Western IR to be recognized and overcome.

To elaborate, I am talking about four biases here:

  • The first bias is ethnocentrism. This is the tendency to theorize about key principles or mechanisms of international order derived from mainly a Western vantage point, using Western ideas, culture, politics, historical experiences and contemporary practice. Conversely it is also reflected in the marginalization of non-Western experiences – culture, politics, historical experiences and contemporary practice. Part of this ethnocentrism can be attributed to a sense of superiority of Western ideas and Western experiences over non-Western ideas and experiences.
  • The second bias is the false universalism in IR theory. There is a tendency to view Western practices as a universal standard while non-Western practices are viewed as particularisms or aberrations or something that is in some way inferior. Much of what happens in IR theory today is an extension of European diplomatic history and contemporary American foreign policy. These are considered to be the universal standard that everyone should try to emulate. We are told that the contemporary state system or regional/international order (such as the European Union’s approach to regional integration) which is derived from the European model is the one that everyone should follow.
  • Third, there is a disjuncture between various elements of IR theory (derived from the Western experience) and what actually happens in the non-Western world. . You have hegemonic stability theory, or theories of interdependence which are supposed to capture the entirety of the world experience, but many simply do not fit or describe what happens in the non-Western world. A key example of disjuncture is seen in the concept of ‘national security’, which framed security studies for much of the Cold War. What you saw was a key concept which places a strong emphasis on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state from external military threats. This concept therefore had very little to say about the key security dilemmas of most developing countries which arise primarily from their domestic sphere. Thus there was a significant disjuncture between the main security discourse in West during the Cold War and the experiences of the Third World.
  • Finally I would identify agency denial as a strong current that runs through mainstream IR Theory. This involves denying the agency of non-Western societies in international relations. Thus, principles and mechanisms of international order building– e.g. democracy, state sovereignty, human rights – are seen as fundamentally Western contributions. The role or agency of non-Western countries or societies is seen as marginal or inconsequential. To give you an example, the idea of sovereignty and the related norm of non-intervention is generally identified as being directly linked to Westphalia. What is missing from the picture is the way these norms were regionalized and adapted in Asia or Latin America or Africa giving rise to different types of regional orders.

… (full long interview text).

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